Nathan Ballingrud’s short story collection North American Lake Monsters springs to life in Hulu’s horror anthology series, Monsterland. Each of the eight episodes that make up Monsterland focus on a unique supernatural tale told with a different cast and in different settings.
Emmy nominee Taylor Schilling (Orange Is the New Black) leads the cast of season one episode five, “Plainfield, Illinois.” The episode explores the relationship of a couple, played by Schilling and Roberta Colindrez, as they push the boundaries between life and death. Schilling joined Monsterland showrunner and executive producer Mary Laws for a virtual roundtable discussion during New York Comic Con to discuss the source material and Schilling’s riveting (and disturbing) episode.
All episodes of Monsterland are currently streaming on Hulu. (Warning: There are episode five spoilers ahead.)
What type of research did you do to better understand what your character was dealing with, both in terms of having bipolar disorder and also turning into a zombie?
Taylor Schilling: “I think that I had many moments where I felt like I was experiencing my life as a horror film. And it feels that way and it feels that heightened. I think a lot of times it’s just when a script is very well written and feels very emotionally solvent, logical, it’s really just a little bit of detective work to figure out, to connect the dots from what’s happening there to what’s happening other places.
This piece made a hell of a lot more sense to me than other more seemingly simple things I’ve done.”
What made you look at the source material and believe it was perfect for an anthology series?
Mary Laws: “Well, the source material itself sort of feels like an anthology series. You know, Nathan’s book is…I mean, first of all, it’s truly beautiful. The depth of character in his book is astonishing and I think as a writer you get sent a lot of (intellectual property) all the time. I took one look at the first story in his book, which is our pilot episode, and I thought, ‘Oh my god I have to do this. I’ve never read anything like this.’
It was such an incredible portrait of a really complicated, young single mother that I felt like, ‘Oh, I’ve never seen that person on screen before.’ And that’s sort of when I always know I have to do it – to put things and people on screen that don’t usually get that spotlight.
But the book itself is a collection of short stories and so every story kind of felt like it was its own tiny little moment in time about a human sort of wrestling inside a pothole they had fallen into in their life. I felt like that was just an amazing stage to be able to play on and tell stories about a lot of different broken people and why they do the monstrous things that they do, a real exploration of humanity.”
What is it that draws you to the supernatural and horror genre?
Mary Laws: “Oh my gosh I just love it! Isn’t it fun? I was talking to a friend of mine a while back and said, ‘I just don’t know how I would ever write anything that’s just stark naturalism.’ I feel like I am so fortunate to sort of put the way that I see the world, emotionally, into these metaphors of zombies, of monsters and demons. I think it’s just a really exciting way to talk about the actual horror of the world is through this lens. So, I’m just drawn to it.
I think as an audience member I’m actually drawn to a lot of naturalism though, maybe because it feels like something I can’t do. But I don’t know – I love it.”
How did you go about finding the directors of each episode?
Mary Laws: “I watched a lot. I mean, some of the directors I’d known because I’d worked with them previously and I felt so lucky to have a chance to work with them on this project. But then others, it was exploration. Recommendations from Hulu, recommendations from our studio Annapurna, recommendations from our writing team. I mean, we were just looking for really incredible auteur-style directors who could come in and really put their fingerprints all over an episode, which is really exciting to me because I think directors don’t usually have that kind of opportunity in television. Everything is sort of supposed to be in a style set. But this, I think every episode is a little bit different and quite unique which I think is a result of us having eight really brilliant, different styles, different backgrounds, different kinds of directors come to the material.
I just chose directors whose work I deeply, truly admired and that I wanted to learn from.”
How do you get into the mindset of someone who’s mentally and physically deteriorating and losing herself as you’re going along in this project?
Taylor Schilling: “I think it’s closer than one would imagine. For me, when the external pieces match the puzzle pieces of the internal landscape it’s really fun. It’s really fun. Everything coalesces and you just can kind of slalom down the slope. So, I think it was a pleasure.”
Was it easier to find her at the beginning of her journey or the end of her journey?
Taylor Schilling: “I think that she was seeking freedom throughout the piece in a really aggressive way. She developed a sense of relief by the end of her story, and that was fun. There were no more constraints. That was really exciting and fun.”
You’ve mentioned you’re not a big horror fan, but you do like psychological thrillers. What is it about them that interests you?
Taylor Schilling: “I’m not opposed to horror films; it’s just never what I click on. It’s not what I’m immediately taken by. That said, any kind of psychological thriller piece where I feel bent emotionally, I feel emotionally manipulated and frightened – I’m all in. I get scared by that. A jump scare I’m like, ‘Really?’ It doesn’t really do much for me. But I want to feel like I’m losing my mind. The mind is really what gets me.
And that’s kind of how I felt about The Prodigy, too. I was fascinated by that woman. And that’s all you can do as an actor, sort of see what comes and then say, ‘Let’s give it a shot. Let’s see how it turns out.’ But that’s what I like. Both (Monsterland and The Prodigy) related in that way, that it felt like the razor’s edge of reality was melting for both of the women in those projects.”